For millions of refugees and displaced people, the journey starts with a catastrophic departure and continues in dire conditions in places that will never qualify as sweet homes – with no end in sight. Everything feels like a struggle: finding food, health, education, work, or leisure.
The United Nations created World Refugee Day to have us take a pause and reflect on what we can do for refugees – because everyone can do something. This may sound ambitious when we watch TV from our homes and see crowds of people – families and children – fleeing conflicts, persecution, or disasters with all their belongings on their backs, or stare at camps with their seas of tents stretching out into the horizon. These images may make us feel overwhelmed by their scale and scope. But there is so much we can do, even as individuals, if only because each and every refugee is an individual person whose humanity mirrors ours.
This is what World Refugee Day is about. A celebration of humanity – not just a reminder of adverse realities. The theme that was identified for 2021 is highly meaningful in this regard: “Together we heal, learn, and shine.” The journeys of refugees highlight that our world has become deeply globalized, that events a continent away affect real people, with real lives. This reminds me of the movie “Six Degrees of Separation” that was based on the mathematical theory that there are no more than six people between us and any other human being in the world. Not more than “six degrees of separation” stand between me and you as you read this! The title should have been “six degrees of closeness.” Refugees may seem to come from a distance afar – but they can never be very separate from us. We are close despite any distance, and when refugees cross borders and oceans, the mirror of humanity comes closer to for us to see our brothers and sisters. In helping to improve their conditions, we truly help to heal the wounds of humanity together, making the world shine in return.
I admire, in this respect, the lessons behind the policies that a country like Uganda has put in place for refugees. This developing, landlocked, African country has long understood that welcoming refugees is not a zero-sum game, whereby one’s gain is someone else’s loss. In the Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement, where my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative operates, I have seen firsthand how the country gains by providing real assistance and opportunities to refugees, helping them to satisfy not just their needs but also their talents and their aspirations. Many countries with much more resources at their hands do not exhibit such magnanimity and common sense.
Indeed, we must ask ourselves who gains, in the end, when millions of people who have been abandoned by fate are abandoned a second time and left to their distress and misery. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be mistaken as a demonstration of how foolish it would be to deprive refugees of health care. So, who gains when dozens of millions cannot fulfil their dreams and contribute to the welfare of humanity as a whole? I think of education, a right that refugees are often deprived of. Yet, the positive impact of helping refugee children and youths pursue their education cannot be underestimated. It is a fact that education has benefits not just for the individuals who receive it but to everyone around them – remember the six degrees of separation. UN agencies manage to provide primary education to millions of refugee children, but getting to secondary education is an uphill battle, and graduating from a university a near oddity: while an average 37% of a generation enrolls in a university, only 3% of refugees do.
These figures are all the more daunting that moderate efforts can have an immense impact. With our partners from the Western Union Foundation, we initiated, at the settlement, a scholarship program that has allowed hundreds of children and adolescents to stay in school. We measured the impact of the program when we were told that our program had a unique impact on girls because it allowed to counterbalance the fact that many families in the settlement tended to prioritize the education of boys. I am also very excited by a partnership that we started two years ago with the Princeton Global History Lab, which developed a fantastic program to train young refugees in global history and oral history. Through this partnership, our youths receive college-level courses from a great university. But they also receive more than that. The idea indeed is for these youths to understand the deeper forces of globalization, which shape most if not all migration, and to produce research about the settlement in which they live. This is empowering because it helps these young refugees and their communities make sense of their situation against the big picture.
This is the essence of WPDI’s programs at the Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement and beyond: to help young people or vulnerable women gain skills and knowledge that will allow them to see their lives through a larger, more hopeful lens. This is to say that we must also help refugees and displaced persons by adopting the right narrative on their stories as well as positive attitudes towards them. Yes, theirs are stories of chaos and ordeal, but theirs are also stories of struggle and courage, stories of hope and resilience. Many people have embraced this view, whom I want to salute on this day. In many places where refugees’ fate has brought them, they will find individuals ready to welcome them as individuals, as people with potential or simply with dreams. World Refugee Day celebrates this capacity that we all have, beyond our differences in origins and journeys, to reduce our degrees of separation and thrive together.